Commentary for Vayikra

23 Mar

This Shabbat is one of the rare occasions where we read from three different Torah scrolls. The first six aliyot are read from the regularly scheduled weekly parshah, the seventh aliyah is the reading that would normally be the maftir reading for Shabbat that coincides with Rosh Chodesh, and the maftir reading is a special portion read on the Shabbat directly before or coinciding with Rosh Chodesh of the month of Nissan, during which Passover falls. All three readings also share a common subject matter: sacrifices.


The first people to offer sacrifices were Cain and Abel. They took some of their own stuff and said “To honor God, I am not going to use this anymore.” The next step in the development of sacrifices was made by Noah, who was the first person to build an altar. Not only does Noah designate a special location for making his sacrifice, but he also uses the altar to burn the sacrifice, ensuring that he can’t wake up the next day, change his mind, and go take his stuff back.   For many, many generations after that, that’s how sacrifices were conducted. Whenever you felt like doing it, you took some of your stuff and burned it on the altar, giving it up to honor God.


The next big step comes in this week’s special maftir. In this reading, God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites to prepare, offer, cook, and eat the Paschal sacrifice. This marks the first time in the Torah where a large group of people offered an identical sacrifice for a common purpose. It is also the first time we see instructions on how a sacrifice should be offered and what should be done with the remaining parts of the animal afterwards (the blood smeared on the doorposts and the meat roasted and eaten with matzah and bitter herbs, while anything that isn’t eaten by morning must be burned). It is the first truly organized sacrifice.


The final development comes in this week’s parshah. We are given many detailed instructions for many different types of sacrifices from many different occasions. Do you just want to give God a gift to say thank you for how great life is? Chapters one and two of Leviticus have all of the instructions for that. Did you accidentally do something you weren’t supposed to? What if everyone else did the same thing wrong, too? What if you’re a public official? All of these cases are covered in chapter four. The seventh aliyah (read from the second Torah) comes from a section that gives similarly detailed rules pertaining to the offerings for all of the holidays.


Together, these sections are a true organized system of sacrifices, with proscribed details that we can compare and contrast and make inferences from to help us determine what to do in a given situation that might not be covered. But if you just start reading at the beginning of Leviticus, there are so many procedural details given for so many different sacrifices that it is almost impossible not to become overwhelmed.


Jewish ritual as a whole is very similar. Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, prayer and many more: there is a very wide range of topics all full of laws which each have their own individuals nuances. It is almost impossible to just dive into the deep end and not drown. Instead, the key is to start small and develop just like the sacrifices did. You can’t expect to make to the roof of a skyscraper by standing on the sidewalk and jumping. You have to start on the ground floor and climb your way up.

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